Diary of a Dragon Slayer
Tony Freedman, Senior Firer with Fantastic Fireworks, describes the ups and downs of a major production at Warwick Castle
The multi-media production at Warwick Castle, Dragon Slayer, is over for another year and The Courtyard is littered with the corpses of dead dragons. Dan Toms (aka Roxx), Steve Hobbs, Ian Downs, Jon Kingsley, Rob Sealey, Vince Pennock and I are all safely back home and recovering from the experience. Whilst the audiences every night were huge, some at capacity, the organisers think they only have one more year in the story before they’ll have to come up with something new and have indicated they will be in touch with us again for the 2020 version.
This is a rather special event for us as, unlike most of our shows, the fireworks are not the primary focus of the show. Rather the fireworks add accent and spectacle to the legend of Sir Guy and his defence of Warwick Castle from a dragon attack that is told using graphic projections using the castle walls as wrap around screens, lighting, sound and flame effects.
The first firework launch is a pair of Tiger Tail Comets launched from the ramparts at opposite sides of The Courtyard. The castle is under attack from a dragon (in reality Vikings) and archers are called up as the first line of defence. As the archers draw back their bows and fire their arrows the images fly across the wall of the castle and, as the projectiles leave the top of the walls, the comet tails launch representing the arrows flying into the air. With the sound and lighting effects this is quite convincing but requires very precise timing. This is achieved by all the companies involved using the same centrally provided timecode clock. Similar precision is needed when the archers, having failed to stop the dragon breaking through the castle walls, are replaced by trebuchets launching flaming balls of fire (actually Gold Comet Tails) at the huge beast.
The creative and technical aspects of this display are remarkably challenging and we believe that Warwick Castle commissioned us to work with them again this year because they know from experience we meet those challenges and enhance their unique, for the UK, production.
After all the usual pre-show design work in the office using video and audio representations of the show we get two rehearsals actually at the castle; a technical rehearsal followed the next evening by a dress rehearsal to which the local residents neighbouring the castle are invited. The technical rehearsal usually reveals the need for some small adjustments to timings and, this year, the modification of some of our effects which were tending to wash out the projections on The Courtyard walls. Yet further, fraction of a second, timings needed to be made after the dress rehearsal so that by the first night we were fully prepped and ready to go.
The effects themselves are single shots, dragon bundles (what else?) and cakes all launched, using wireless firing, from nine positions around the towers and ramparts tens of metres above the audiences of several thousand each night. Having carried up all the candle cages, stage weights and fire extinguishers before the technical rehearsal, we are given storage up on the ramparts for our rigging equipment but have to set it out and clear it away each evening and, of course, carry the live up and bring the gash back down each night. The ancient spiral stone staircases were never designed for conveying pyrotechnic equipment up and down and, having spent more than three weeks doing just that, the firing team developed a certain respect for the archers and boiling oil operatives who must have manoeuvred themselves and their weapons up and down those ramparts on a regular basis in days long gone by.
Over the course of the run the various combinations of crews developed more and more efficient methods of rigging and clearing each show. We can’t get on to the site until the Castle closes to the public in the evening and have to have everything in place and tested before it re-opens to the evening ticket holder only a little over an hour or so later. Rigging all the single shots on fingers and plates for each of the nine positions in a secluded part of the car park or, better, on tables in The Courtyard each evening whilst waiting for entry permission saved a great deal of time as did cutting off the fired pyro as it came down from the walls after each show. Nevertheless, of all the technical crews needed for such an elaborate multi-media presentation, we were always the first on site each day and the last to leave each night.
After the final performance on Bank Holiday Monday night and completing the full de-rig, including bringing all our equipment down to ground level and packing it back in our van, we set off on the journey back home and our much needed beds via Rocket Park. The challenges, however, are not quite over yet; Highways England have their own special way of adding to the joys of the drive back by, seemingly, randomly closing those sections of the motorways and A-roads most essential to our early arrival in Luton and setting quite unnecessary speed limits on all the others. An extensive tour of The Midlands’ by-ways and single track roads is, no doubt, a valuable and entertaining experience in the daylight for those who like that kind of thing but for those longing for rest and travelling at the darkest time of night amounts to little more than pure, high blood pressure inducing frustration – a plague on all their houses!